Supreme Court says unanimous jury verdicts required in state criminal trials for serious offenses

Only the states of Oregon and Louisiana allowed for non-unanimous jury verdicts in cases involving serious criminal charges. Louisiana changed that law at the beginning of last year.

Posted: Apr 20, 2020 10:13 AM
Updated: Apr 20, 2020 3:26 PM

By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter

(CNN) -- The Supreme Court said Monday that unanimous jury verdicts are required in state criminal trials for serious offenses, handing a victory to criminal defendants including petitioner Evangelisto Ramos, who was convicted of murder in Louisiana on a 10-2 vote.

Ramos argued that Louisiana's non-unanimous jury provision violated his federal constitutional right to trial by jury and that the law had racist roots meant to diminish the votes of minority jurors.


RELATED: Bill to put non-unanimous juries before Oregon voters fails


Justice Neil Gorsuch penned the opinion and was joined in key parts by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Brett Kavanaugh.

"We took this case to decide whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial -- as incorporated against the States by way of the Fourteenth Amendment -- requires a unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense," Gorsuch wrote.

"One of these requirements was unanimity," he said, "a jury must reach a unanimous verdict in order to convict."

"The answer is unmistakable," he said.

Justice Clarence Thomas concurred in the judgment on narrower grounds, whereas Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Elena Kagan joined Justice Samuel Alito's dissent.

In general, over time, the Supreme Court has ruled that most of the Bill of Rights applies not only to the federal government but to the states. But in 1972, the court held that while the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts for federal criminal trials, such verdicts are not required for state trials. Only two states allowed non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases, Oregon and Louisiana, and Louisiana changed its law effective January 1, 2019.

Gorsuch said that while the two states continued to allow non-unanimous verdicts, their practices have "always stood on shaky ground."


RELATED: Appeals court won't review Oregon's non-unanimous jury law


In ruling in favor of Ramos, the court overturned the 1972 case, triggering a heated debate among some of the justices that might foreshadow future cases to come concerning issues that often closely divide them.

Kavanaugh wrote separately to explain why the prior case, called Apodaca, should be overruled. He said that while the notion of "stare decisis" -- a legal term that means to "stand by that which has been decided" is important court doctrine, there are times when the court should "overrule erroneous precedents."

He said that when the court overrules precedent, it demands a "special justification or strong grounds." He went on to list factors the court should consider including whether a prior decision was "egregiously wrong" and whether it has caused "significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences."

Writing the main dissent, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by the Chief Justice and in part by Kagan, said that "stare decisis" gets "rough treatment in today's decision."

He said the Apodaca case should be retained in part because Louisiana and Oregon had relied upon it for 48 years and "conducted thousands and thousands of trials under rules allowing non-unanimous verdicts."

"Now, those States face a potential tsunami of litigation," he said as defendants whose cases are still active will presumably be entitled to a new trial if they were convicted by a less-than-unanimous verdict.

In 2014, Ramos was convicted by a 10-2 vote of the second-degree murder of Trinece Fedison after her body was found in a trash can in a wooded area in New Orleans.

Ramos argued that Louisiana's law that permitted non-unanimous jury verdicts in non-capital cases violated his federal constitutional rights. He also said that Louisiana's rule -- embedded in the state's constitution since 1898 -- has racist roots as it was adopted to enable white majorities to outvote black minorities in the jury box.

"As the Court has said many times over many decades, the Sixth Amendment requires a unanimous verdict to convict," Jeffrey Fisher, a lawyer for Ramos told the justices. He said that the opinion, in Louisiana, would only impact about 36 cases that are on direct review.

Louisiana countered that the Sixth Amendment's right to a jury trial does not require criminal convictions by a unanimous jury in state or federal courts. In court, a lawyer for Louisiana argued that if the Supreme Court were to rule in favor of Ramos the ruling could apply to some 32,000 people that are currently serving time for serious crimes because thousands of petitioners would come to the court demanding relief. Oregon filed a friend of the court brief arguing that if the court were to rule in favor of Ramos it would require the retrial of "hundreds if not thousands of cases."

This story has been updated with additional information about the case.

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 205154

Reported Deaths: 2730
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah40141612
Washington26650247
Marion23258322
Clackamas18773234
Lane13777158
Jackson11420146
Deschutes994080
Umatilla851786
Linn551779
Klamath475377
Yamhill475079
Polk393755
Douglas379780
Malheur359763
Josephine353272
Benton324022
Jefferson235738
Coos215737
Columbia188829
Union148824
Wasco143429
Lincoln141221
Crook127623
Hood River121533
Morrow115216
Clatsop10318
Baker99315
Curry68510
Tillamook6604
Grant5487
Lake4667
Harney4239
Wallowa1945
Gilliam751
Sherman661
Wheeler351
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 3803094

Reported Deaths: 63204
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Los Angeles124643624433
Riverside3013294620
San Bernardino2990144788
San Diego2813133770
Orange2727455103
Santa Clara1199462177
Kern1106171400
Sacramento1073951723
Fresno1027951720
Alameda893401285
Ventura815721028
San Joaquin744191432
Contra Costa70358810
Stanislaus632661068
Tulare49758849
Monterey43804420
San Mateo42611581
San Francisco37197555
Santa Barbara34577460
Solano33625266
Merced32272474
Sonoma30688323
Imperial28800741
Placer23383299
Kings23170247
San Luis Obispo21411261
Madera16590245
Santa Cruz16206208
Marin14184229
Yolo14120212
Shasta12599232
Butte12586194
El Dorado10351116
Napa999580
Sutter9628112
Yuba646150
San Benito610263
Lassen577524
Tehama571663
Nevada488375
Humboldt443446
Mendocino428250
Tuolumne419970
Amador372147
Lake355645
Glenn242527
Siskiyou239037
Colusa227918
Calaveras220156
Del Norte14528
Inyo143438
Mono12954
Plumas7356
Modoc5344
Mariposa4647
Trinity4175
Sierra1130
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Tonight: Today was our first dry day in a while, although we can't rule out a stray shower or thunderstorm popping up in extreme northern portions of Lake or Klamath counties. Models are hinting that most of this should stay to our north, towards the Bend area. Any lingering clouds today will quickly dissipate by the evening. However, it could prove to be a breezy night in portions of Siskiyou County. Low temperatures will drop down to the upper 30s to low 40s in Northern California, the Klamath Basin, and in the Cascades. Along the coast and in the Rogue Valley, lows will be in the upper 40s to low 50s.

Tomorrow: Our Wednesday will be substantially warmer compared to our Tuesday. Relief from the heat in the form of cloud cover will be absent. High temperatures will be in the upper 80s to low 90s in the Rogue Valley and in Northern California. Highs will be in the mid 80s in the Klamath Basin, mid 70s in the Cascades, and in the upper 60s to low 70s along the coast. The breezy conditions in Siskiyou County from tonight will carry over into Wednesday, and gusts could reach 25 mph in some coastal communities as well. 

Extended: Thursday will be even hotter than Wednesday, and it'll just be a continuation of the stale weather pattern we're about to be in. Skies should remain clear for the forseeable future, and blistering heat looks to be in store for the weekend. We could be talking about high temperature in the upper 90s to triple digits in the Rogue Valley and Siskiyou County. Highs could be in the 90s in the Klamath Basin, in the 80s in the Cascades, and in the 70s along the coast.

Most of the beneficial rain that fell over the weekend was concentrated over the coast, meaning that drought conditions probably didn't improve much in the Rogue Valley and points eastward. As we stay dry and hot throughout the rest of the week, we'll be watching for the return of favorable fire conditions, especially in Lake County. The good news is that winds appear to be light towards the end of the week, which should limit the wildfire threat to some degree.

A FREEZE WARNING has been issued for our westside valleys in Jackson, Josephine and Curry Counties until 8 AM Wednesday. Low temperatures in these areas will fall down to near and even below freezing overnight. The coldest temperatures will be in the Applegate and Illinois Valley where temperatures could dip into the upper 20s. With widespread frost and possible freezing temperatures, be sure to protect and cover any sensitive plants.
Tonight: The clear and warm day will give way to a clear and mild evening. Temperatures for inland areas this evening will stay solidly in the 50s and 60s through the 8 P.M. hour, meaning this will be a near picture perfect evening for a barbecue or Wednesday evening walk. Overnight low temperatures will also stay more mild than recently, falling into the mid to upper 30s in our westside valleys with mid to upper 20s east of the Cascades. The coast will see temperatures staying in the 40s through the overnight hours. 
Extended: Beyond Wednesday, we'll see a very gradual and slow cooling trend through the rest of the workweek, but temperatures will remain above average. Easter Weekend will start off dry, but clouds will increase and by Easter Sunday, we could be looking at some chances for rain for at least parts of our region. We'll be keeping a close eye on this system and your holiday weekend forecast. It's possible wet weather could continue into next week with cooler temperatures.

Stay updated on the StormWatch 12 forecast on-air and online.

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